Truly Unconventional Christmas Films for the Bleak Midwinter

The traditional popular Christmas film is typically full of holiday joy and good cheer, as exemplified by enduring classics like the musical White Christmas, the madcap silliness of Elf, or the syrupy sentiment of Love, Actually. To be clear, I love all these films; these are the feel-good movies of the holiday season, the cinematic hot cocoa or cider which soothes the soul in the darkness of winter and the end of yet another year.

But what about Christmas movies featuring hyper-violent shootouts, alien chest-bursters, or maniacal serial killers? Shall we include these unconventional Christmas films in our cinematic holiday fare? While Die Hard may come to mind as an ‘unconventional’ Christmas film, after thirty years of debate it’s found its place within the Yuletide pantheon. Same goes for Gremlins, Joe Dante’s darkly comic fairy-tale, nowadays frequently found under the ‘holiday’ DVD section. Other notable unconventional Christmas-themed movies include the filmographies of Tim Burton (Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) and screenwriter/director Shane Black (Lethal WeaponKiss Kiss Bang BangIron Man 3, and The Nice Guys).

In his consideration of Christmas films as secularised celebrations of the ‘religion’ of capitalist consumerism, Christopher Deacy says that Christmas ‘inspires such seemingly irreconcilable and disparate treatment’ in that ‘both Christmas and Christianity may be competing sites of religious activity’ within our post-secular Western culture. [1] I want to take Deacy’s analysis one step further—beyond consumerism, the cinematic ‘Christmas’ in a post-secular culture blurs the lines between belief and unbelief, sacred and secular, and thus expands beyond the generic holiday tropes to find the presence of Christmas incarnate within unlikely places. A filmmaker’s inclusion of Christmas within a film’s narrative, I suggest, invites a theological or religious interpretation of the work as a whole.

A filmmaker’s inclusion of Christmas within a film’s narrative, I suggest, invites a theological or religious interpretation of the work as a whole.

For example, we may view Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as an orgiastic holiday nightmare, a re-imagining of what it means to give good gifts to our loved ones. John Rambo in First Blood experiences the ultimate ‘no room in the inn’ response as a traveller-turned-fugitive in the wintry wilderness at Christmastime. The Christmas season is downright purgatorial for two distraught hitmen in In Bruges, perhaps imagining the Nativity story from the perspective of King Herod’s (‘Harry’, in this case) conscience-stricken soldiers who are commanded to massacre infants in Bethlehem. Even without an overt Christmas referent, we can consider Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian sci-fi film Children of Men as a retelling of the Nativity story, one complete with its miraculous birth of a child bringing salvation and an unlikely Joseph character in Clive Owen.

Beyond those I listed above, I want to consider some truly unconventional Christmas films, movies which rarely, if ever, cross our minds when we recall the birth of Christ or the traditional holiday movies. [2] These are films either set during the Christmas season or with the holiday present within the narrative. In this, I’ll thematically follow the traditional four candles of the Advent wreath—hope, peace, joy, and love—to draw unlikely theological links between these grim-and-gritty Christmas films and the theological significance of Advent and the incarnation of God.

 Hope: The Proposition (2006, John Hillcoat)

‘Australia…what fresh hell is this’. So says Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley as he offers Guy Pearce’s captured outlaw, Charlie Burns, a deal: Charlie must kill his criminal older brother, Arthur, in order to save his incarcerated younger brother, Mikey. The deadline for fulfilling this proposition? Christmas day.

John Hillcoat’s bushranger Western set in the 1880s Australian outback is like a Cormac McCarthy novel put to screen (appropriately, Hillcoat directed the film adaptation of McCarthy’s The Road). With a script and soundtrack from Nick Cave, The Proposition lacks the snowy scenery and blissful cheer of Christmas films. Instead, the Australian landscape illuminates the gruesome violence of outlaws and bounty hunters. Human depravity is on full display under the harsh sun of the rocky wilderness. ‘I will civilise this land’, says Stanley, perhaps motivated by the gracious presence of his wife, Martha (Emily Watson). But even she is driven to uncivilised behaviour. Spurned by vengeance against the Burns brothers, a mob of townsfolks witness and cheer on the violent lashing of Mikey as a sort of scapegoat. Initially cathartic, the violence continues unabated—Mikey is given one-hundred lashes—until it is too overwhelming and Martha faints, with the film’s audience likely not far behind.

Hillcoat’s direction and Cave’s script and soundtrack present this land as an entrance into a living hell: abandon all hope, ye who enter here. So, why would anyone want to watch this at Christmas? Film critic Roger Ebert asks a similar question in his 4-star review of The Proposition:

‘Why do you want to see this movie? Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps … it will take you more than one try to face the carnage. But the [filmmakers have] made a movie you cannot turn away from; it is so pitiless and uncompromising, so filled with pathos and disregarded innocence, that it is a record of those things we pray to be delivered from’. [3]

‘A record of things we pray to be delivered from’ is, in other words, an indirect record of hope in the face of despair. Philosopher Ernst Bloch described hope as a daydream, a wish, a drive for things to improve, a longing for the Not-Yet. In its grim hallucinatory aesthetic, The Proposition prompts such longings; it is a nightmare out of which the daydream of hope can arise.

Peace: Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott’s prequel to the Alien films impresses through its visuals and soundtrack even though its script is an ambitious philosophical mess. When asked why he’s decorating a Christmas tree upon waking up from a hyper-sleep state aboard the spaceship Prometheus, captain Janek (Idris Elba) declares, ‘It’s Christmas! We need a holiday to show time is still moving’. He later plays ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ on his accordion. But in Prometheus, it is not God with us, but extra-terrestrial engineering ‘gods’ against us as the crew seeks the creators of humanity on an alien moon. In the world Scott envisions, meeting one’s maker is to come face-to-face with death.

From human life originating from aliens instead of from the divine, to protagonist Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) Christian faith as the underlying mockery of the film, to Ridley Scott’s claim that Christ himself was one of the alien engineers sent to Earth and killed by humans (thus prompting them to create an organic weapon to destroy humankind), Prometheus often feels deliberately anti-Christian in its philosophical and theological ideas. Consider this: the central character, a barren woman named Elizabeth, finds herself miraculously pregnant by means of the maker(s) of humanity. But instead of the Magnificat, she performs an abortion on her offspring—instead of a saviour, she births a monster.

When geriatric CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, his second role on this Christmas movies list) finally has the chance to meet one of the alien engineers—his maker and creator—the engineer beats Weyland to death with the decapitated head of Weyland’s own creation, the android David (Michael Fassbender). The dying Weyland mutters ‘there’s… nothing’, to which David’s head stoically replies, ‘I know’. It’s about as nihilistic at it comes—a man spends trillions of dollars and years of his life (not to mention others’ lives) to find answers for his existence, but is met with nothingness and horrors.

What happens in a world devoid of God and entirely reliant upon scientific materialism and capitalist consumerism? Such a world turns out to be violent and void, deprived of life and peace. ‘Must feel like your God abandoned you’, David tells Elizabeth as he reveals that an alien lifeform grows in her barren abdomen. It does indeed; there is no shalom here. Viewing Prometheus as a Christmas film reminds us of the great shalom of God’s incarnate presence in Christ, the peace to those on whom his favour rests (Luke 2.14). As Advent is a season of searching, waiting, and hoping for a saviour, Prometheus also stirs up such longings—Elizabeth’s hopeful final words, ‘I am still searching’, is an Advent message if there ever was one.

Joy: Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker)

‘Merry Christmas Eve, bitch’.

These are the first words spoken in Sean Baker’s kinetic, frenetic Tangerine, a stark contrast to Prometheus in both form and content. Chatting in a local Los Angeles dive, Donut Time, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are two transgender prostitutes trying to live the good life. Sin-Dee has done a brief stint in jail, during which her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) cheated on her with a ‘fish’, a cisgender woman. This prompts Sin-Dee to embark on a manic quest to find Chester and confront him. ‘What do you see in him? Why are you looking for him?’ Alexandra demands from Sin-Dee. It’s Christmas; we want to be with the ones we love.

Alexandra’s own quest is to perform a song in a bar for all her friends and fans. The song she chooses is ‘Toyland’, found on Doris Day’s 1964 Christmas album, featuring the lyrics ‘Childhood’s joy land / Mystic merry toyland / Once you pass its borders / You can ne’er return again’. Where does she perform this Christmas tune? The seedy bar ‘Mary’s’ at 7:00 p. m. But Alexandra’s Christmas wish isn’t quite fulfilled—nobody shows up besides Sin-Dee and the ‘fish’ she has abusively dragged there, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). Yet Sin-Dee did come, putting her pursuit of Chester on pause to celebrate Alexandra’s moment on the stage.

The third member of Tangerine’s narrative trinity is Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a family man who also has a penchant for engaging in fellatio with the transgender prostitutes. When his mother-in-law becomes suspicious after Razmik abandons Christmas dinner to try to attend Alexandra’s performance, it culminates in an intense showdown and confession at Donut Time, as all three—Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and Razmik—come face-to-face with their sexual secrets and betrayals, bringing their interior darkness out into the light. The anxious argument ends with a strange calmness in the film’s frantic pacing, a sense of peace or even joy as we watch these three people quietly wish and dream.

There is an intentional discord between the tawdry grunge of the urban margins of Los Angeles and the vibrant orange-tinged cinematography of Tangerine. Deeply empathetic, Baker’s unique digital camerawork—he shot it entirely using iPhones—captures this world with a sense of genuine grace. This is a film pulsing with life and verve in the face of death. Indeed, in the midst of drug use, wanton sex, rampant poverty, and melodramatic confrontations, the simple climactic gesture of a lent wig in a laundromat is a humanising act of mercy and care. Where many might look at these characters with scorn or judgement, Baker invites us to see each person exactly as that—a person, a human being bearing the image of God, and thus worthy of dignity and celebration. In Tangerine, Christmas joy may even be found on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland.

Love: The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

Fantastical in its expressionistic aesthetic and haunting black-and-white visuals, The Night of the Hunter is a true nightmare before Christmas.‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ are tattooed on the knuckles of itinerant misogynist serial killer Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). Posing as a charming preacher, he travels from town to town in Depression-era West Virginia, marrying and murdering women as he goes. When he learns of a small fortune stolen and hidden by condemned thief Ben Harper (Peter Graves), he seeks out Harper’s distraught widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and her two children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), in order to secure the money for himself. Though he gaslights Willa and the local townsfolk, John remains suspicious, and when Willa goes missing, the children take off on their own down the Ohio river. They happen upon Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a tough but kind elderly woman who looks after stray children; as she says, ‘it’s a hard world for little things’.

Like a dark doppelganger of It’s a Wonderful Life, the neo-noir thriller prominently features Christmas set within its dream-like and theologically-infused narrative. Both open with religious narration set against a starry-sky—Hunter features Rachel telling children (and the audience) about the Beatitudes—and both end on Christmas with a cathartic sense of hope following an evening of existential horrors. When Harry tracks down the children to murder them and secure the money, a shotgun-toting Rachel stands up to him, staying up all night while he lurks outside her home in the darkness singing his favourite hymn, ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’. Rachel joins in the singing; a strong Christian woman, her faith helps her quickly discern the situation with Harry and the children, and she is willing to give her life for them.

As Harry manages to break into the house, Rachel comforts the children by telling them the story of King Herod seeking to kill the infant Christ, how Jesus’s parents take off for Egypt to save him. ‘Like Moses!’ John remarks, alluding to the Exodus tale Rachel told the children in an earlier scene. Even as John was initially wary of Rachel—all adults at this point have betrayed or abandoned him—his love for her (and her love for him and Pearl) solidifies as she keeps watch over her little flock by night and proves her Christian commitments in her abiding actions.

At the end of The Night of the Hunter, Love and Hate, Rachel and Harry, collide in a showdown where the former defeats the latter via Scripture quotes and shotgun blasts. At Harry’s trial, the angry crowd calls for his death and turns into a lynch mob. But Rachel leads the children away from the violence as the judge calls out ‘Merry Christmas!’ The film closes with John and Pearl celebrating Christmas with Rachel and the other children, all receiving and giving presents as they begin a new chapter as a family.

In the Bleak Midwinter

In an early chapter of Tradition and Imagination, David Brown considers contemporary Christmas celebrations, seeking a via media between a conservative return-to-the-Bible approach and a liberal ‘jettisoning of [the Nativity story’s] equally mythological content’. He suggests an ‘adaptation and elaboration of Scripture’ akin to the Johannine story of Pentecost. [4] I suggested above that the presence of Christmas in a film invites a theological interpretation. Yet, building upon Brown, a film (especially these unlikely candidates) may also cause us to reinterpret the meaning and significance of Christmas itself, prompting us to adapt and expand our imaginations regarding what makes a Christmas film Christmas-y. In each of these unconventional Christmas films, the paradoxical dissonance of Christmas is made manifest: the awesome wonder of the infinite God entering into human history as one of us was enacted in the dark margins of society, witnessed only by a handful of ragamuffins and outsiders, people very much like the characters within the films I’ve explored. One can imagine Charlie and Mikey, Elizabeth and David, Sinn-Dee and Alexandra, or John and Pearl in the darkest of nights, seeking the manger where hope might be found.

a film (especially these unlikely candidates) may also cause us to reinterpret the meaning and significance of Christmas itself

Both theologically and cinematically, those living in darkness have seen a great Light piercing through the shadows to display the divine presence in unexpected places, sometimes even in the darkest of movies. I’m reminded of Christina Rossetti’s poem-turned-carol:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign.

In the bleak mid-winter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.

Living in Scotland, the phrase ‘bleak mid-winter’ certainly feels apt as the sun barely graces the horizon each blustery day of December. In these bleak winter months, the darkest of all seasons, the Light of the world yet shines through, and the darkness has not overcome it.

 


[1] Christopher Deacy, ‘The “Religion” of Christmas’, Journal of Scandinavian Cinema 3, no. 3 (2013), 196.

[2] I have an ever-expanding list of ‘*Really* Unconventional Christmas Movies’ at Letterboxd, which inspired the creation of this article: https://letterboxd.com/jmayward/list/really-unconventional-christmas-movies/.

[3] Roger Ebert, ‘The Proposition (2006)’, Roger Ebert. May 18, 2006. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-proposition-2006.

[4] See ‘The hermeneutics of Pentecost and crib’ in David Brown, Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 60-105.

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